Support groups have been beneficial to many people living with chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Studies show arthritis support groups can improve mood, provide better coping skills, decrease pain and provide relief from negative emotions, such as fear, resentment and hopelessness, according to Vicki Helgeson, PhD, of Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, who has studied the impact of support groups for more than a decade.

However, support groups have gotten a bad rap because some can become a ceaseless cycle of negativity in which members continuously vent, but do not learn to cope and accept their illness.

“Some people don’t like support groups, because they think they’re a pity party,” says Ellen Fleischer, 67, who started a support group with fellow RA patients after they became acquainted in her doctor’s office in Delray Beach, Fla. “But I think arthritis support groups can be exactly the opposite. I think they empower people.”

“Certain support groups might be more beneficial than others in providing skills that enable members to move on,” says Helgeson.

For example, an educational group moderated by professionals sets a formal pace, while peer, or self-help, groups are open-ended exercises run by a participant. “I found that peer discussion groups work best for people who lack support at home,” says Helgeson, noting that for people who do have sig­nif­icant support systems in place, an educational support group might be of greater use.

Whether the leader is a professional or a peer, you should ask about the leader’s role – would she just facilitate the discussion or moderate it so participants do not share inaccurate health information? Helgeson favors those groups moderated by an impartial trained leader.

“When the leader is involved in the discussions, there is greater potential for successful healing,” says Helgeson. “That is why the qualifications of the leader are so important.”

Finding the right group

There are several types of support groups:

Closed – not open to public without preregistration; requires commitment to attend a set number of sessions.

Group therapy – directed by a mental health professional, with a time-limited purpose for specific therapeutic goals. Some teach coping skills and relaxation techniques.

Peer – led by a fellow patient, this group’s casual format focuses on sharing experiences, and learning from others’ experiences.

Educational – features an expert’s presentation, with a question-and-answer session.

Online – support found on Internet chat sites are considered peer groups.

To find arthritis support groups, contact your local Arthritis Foundation office, speak with your doctor or call area hospitals.